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The inside story with Google’s external ranking factors

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Episode Overview

When it comes to Google rankings, there are a lot of external factors that might seem out of a marketer’s immediate control.  In this latest podcast in Searchmetrics’ Content Ranking Factors series, SEO experts Kathy Alice Brown and Jordan Koene share their expertise, going behind the curtain, looking at the latest changes with backlinking, anchor text, Private Blog Networks, and more.

Kathy, Ben, and Jordan cover:

  • Google’s move to more complexity when evaluating links versus the old-school bulk approach
  • How do marketers get their site links recognized, not only by Google, but with other credible sources as well?
  • How does Google determine brand authority and the value of a link?
  • Will paid ads make my Google rankings go higher?


Episode Transcript

Ben:                             Welcome to Ranking Factors month on the Voices of Search Podcast. I’m your host, Benjamin Shapiro, and this month we’re taking a deep dive into the weeds to examine the technical, external, and content ranking factors that impact your business’s visibility. Joining us today are two of Searchmetrics’ best and brightest SEOs. Jordan Koene is a world-renowned SEO strategist and the CEO of Searchmetrics Inc., and Kathy Alice Brown is a senior SEO consultant and one of our most experienced thought leaders.

Ben:                             And today Jordan and Kathy are going to walk us through some of the most important external ranking factors. But before we get started, I want to remind you that this podcast is brought to you by the marketing team and Searchmetrics. We are an SEO and content marketing platform that helps enterprise scale businesses monitor their online presence and make data driven decisions.

Ben:                             And as part of Ranking Factors week, we’d like to welcome you, our loyal podcast listeners, to our upcoming webinar in which we’ll discuss the evolution of custom ranking factors with machine learning. This webinar is happening on April 25, which I believe is the day that we’re publishing this content. So, if you have a chance, you should check it out today. To join our discussion about how a new generation of machine learning is evolving to provide on-demand and domain specific ranking factors that are shaping the future of SEO, go to

Ben:                             Okay, on with the show. Here is my conversation with Searchmetrics’ own Jordan Koene and Kathy Alice Brown. Jordan and Kathy, welcome to the Voices of Search Podcast.

Kathy:                          Hi. It’s great to be here. This is Kathy.

Jordan:                         Hey Ben. I’m looking forward to this one.

Ben:                             Kathy, it’s a pleasure to have you here.

Jordan:                         Yeah, I figured as much.

Ben:                             (laughs)

Kathy:                          (laughs)

Ben:                             Good to see you buddy. I’m excited. We’re going to wrap up Ranking Factors month. And we’re talking about things that are not necessarily under the SEOs control all of the time. We’re going to talk about some of the external factors that impact your visibility. Just to get started, why don’t we talk a little bit about building ranking factors what’s the status of ranking factors and just give us a lay of the land.

Kathy:                          Well, maybe I’ll start with a definition. So, link-building, I’m sure most of us have heard this term, but link-building is just the practice that our activities that will lead to links coming into your site, which we like to call backlinks. So, these are other sites that are linking to yours. And just like everything else in SEO and digital marketing, it’s evolved. What we used to do doesn’t really work anymore.

Jordan:                         Yeah, I think there’s a couple of different key components to link-building as we think about it. There’s where you get started. Right? So, there’s the new websites that always are trying to figure out, “Well, how do I get links to get recognized not only in Google but to really get, get recognized online?” And then there’s the old websites, the established websites, let’s call it, which are managing their backlinks and managing that portfolio or assets that they have pointing to their website. And, and the reality is that there’s very different tactics and approach to, to solving for those two use cases.

Kathy:                          And one thing that I think is kind of interesting is it used to be that we all used to try to build links that had that anchor text. So, if you’re selling cars it would, “Buy cars online,” and, “Ooh, we got a backlink with that anchor text, and that was great.” And as most of us know, those types of links often are a problem. And I think we’ve really evolved to the place where backlinks are now more about trust that if Forbes links to you or CNN or some high authority website, then that’s just showing that they trust you enough to link to you. And it’s less about the actual anchor text or link, per say, and more about that trust that’s coming over from the other site.

Ben:                             So, I think that the term link-building has a negative connotation amongst most SEOs these days because of some of the more black hat practices where the older strategies of link-building were about generating a high volume of links across somewhat minimally credible sites and just as many links as you can get spread across a wide net.

Ben:                             And that lead to a lot of bad behavior from SEOs. And now it seems like there is more; I don’t know if it’s as simple as this, but you basically have to take a brand to a main authority and multiply it by the number of links to sort of estimate what the value is that you’re getting. Bigger sites, you can have fewer links. If you’re getting a ton of sites, you’re not going to get a lot of value out of them. Am I thinking about this in the right way? Is it essentially the value you’re getting from links is the credibility of the website times the number of links or is it more sophisticated than that?

Kathy:                          It’s a bit more sophisticated than that. I think you, you’re on the right path. The type of link you’re getting can make a difference too. For example, we like to see editorial links, so a link that’s been in vetted and the content. And you’re being cited as an authority, you know. I’m linking out to this person saying, “Hey, I’m discussing this topic. And, oh by the way, see this other blog post, or article, or whatever for more information on this one detail that I’m discussing here.”

Kathy:                          So, those are really the best types of links. You know, you can have footer links. You can have sidebar links. You can have widget links. And those types of links are the ones that people typically have gotten in trouble with, because they’re, they’re more manipulative. Where an editorial link gets, like, the writer is actually is linked out to you to help support what they’re trying to say.

Ben:                             So, talk to me about the impact of the change in the way that Google evaluates links moving towards a more complex way to evaluate it, not just sort of looking at bulk but really taking in multiple factors to figure out how to evaluate the quality of your links.

Jordan:                         Yeah, so there’s this reality that link-building has been considered more of like a policing exercise for Google where they’re monitoring where a website may be acquiring or collecting links in a way that may not be considered within Google’s policies. But the reality is that, I, I don’t think that’s really how Google thinks about the situation, although that’s how the industry portrays it. And I think that’s also to your point earlier, Ben, why there’s a lot of bad press or bad recognition.

Jordan:                         What I really do believe is that it, Google’s looking at it from what you just said, which is a performance standpoint. Right? Like, how is this link creating value for users? Where is the value generated from such a link? Is it based on relationship, like there’s a relationship between these brands and that relationship’s positive, there’s a partnership? Or is it based on some sort of a, a value-add that this piece of content or that this sourced link is providing to users?

Jordan:                         So, the ultimate reality is that performance is not only a driver of how Google is evaluating these links, but eventually it becomes a driver of search performance because as you acquire links, not only more of them but higher quality links, you also start to rank better for certain searches.

Kathy:                          I mean, one thing to take a look at is if these links, these backlinks you have … it’s not just about the SEO authority that comes through, but the question that I sometimes ask is, “Do you get any actual traffic from those links?” I mean, if no one’s clicking on that link, then it’s likely not that helpful to the user, and therefore I think Google’s not going to look at it with a lot of trust.

Kathy:                          So, I think the bottom line, and Jordan’s already touched on this a little bit, is it has to convey some value to the user. It has to support the article, or it has to sort of show up this relationship that these two sites have. It just has to provide value to the user. And if that’s not there, then you’re likely to get in trouble with Google.

Ben:                             So, let’s talk a little bit more about that. Let’s talk about the downside of link-building strategies. If you’re going out and you’re trying to solicit links, you can get into some trouble with Google. Let’s talk a little bit about what can go wrong if you’re focusing on building out links.

Kathy:                          Well, one I think is that sometimes I find business owners, marketing managers sometimes have trouble getting their heads around is they want to just go, “Here, take this project and go create some links for me.” And it really doesn’t work that way anymore, because those links need to come to great content on your website. So, people don’t link to pages that really don’t have much value.

Kathy:                          So, A, you need pages that are link worthy. But, B, it really has to be integrated with the rest of your marketing. It sort of has to fall in line with messaging and the marketing campaigns that you’re participating in, because Google wants to see businesses going about their business than marketing themselves. And if you’ve got a campaign going along where you’re trying to get a certain message about and you’ve written a couple articles or blog posts on it and then people link to that and that’s part of your marketing campaign, that looks a lot more natural than you know, Joe’s blog linking to you from their sidebar to a site that’s completely unrelated to their blog post.

Jordan:                         There’s a couple of things I think most SEOs, but also just in general, a lot of marketing folks who are supporting the link building efforts, forget about when it comes to bad practices. And the first one is then they don’t just go away. Like, if you invest a ton of time and energy to create a bad link building practice, it takes a lot of time and energy to get rid of it. And it’s just there, and Google’s always going to know that it’s there, and so sometimes you’re better off creating value add, link building efforts that are integrated with your other marketing teams and supported by the greater good of the business than you are to try to go rogue and create some link building campaign just because you thought it was going to help you with SEO.

Ben:                             I think the devil’s in the details  where the idea of going out and soliciting links that are just a link for link’s sake is likely going to get Google to raise their eyebrow at your domain. Going out and building relationships and sharing links and having people talk about your company and appropriately doing and actually having an authentic link building strategy still has some value, doesn’t it?

Kathy:                          Definitely. Yeah. I mean I think you hit the nail on the head, is you just have to have that mindset. It’s not about, “oh, I’m going to contact the site and try to get a link out of them.” It’s more about, “Oh, I’m going to contact this site because we’ve got some synergies in our business and they would be an interesting partner, not only because they might link to me but because of other marketing activities we might be involved in together.”

Ben:                             Yeah. At the end of the day, you know where I think the simplistic version that I mentioned earlier of like link times domain authority equals value. Now that we’re going through this conversation, I think that there’s multiple different things an SEO needs to think about. It’s what’s the domain authority of the place that that link’s going to be? Is it going to generate traffic and what’s the performance of that traffic? Those are likely to be the metrics that Google is looking at. It’s not just about where is the link and is the site valuable, it is, is it being used and then what is the impact of the traffic coming from that link?

Kathy:                          So, I think one of the things to think about is we’re going to talk about brand in this conversation, but it’s also like the people who represent your brand. So, you know, it’s also, maybe you’re trying to build someone up in your company as the authority. Like Jordan is really well known as the CEO of Searchmetrics. He’s out there, he’s at conferences, people listen to what he’s saying. So, he’s probably attracting links just by doing the sort of brand ambassador work that he does for Searchmetrics. So, I think you need to think about that. Also is how am I building the authority of the people who speak for the company and I would include that as metrics I would look at.

Ben:                             Jordan Koene, link magnate.

Jordan:                         Well just to be clear, none of that was a paid sponsorship. That was all organic. All right, so we didn’t pay for that.

Ben:                             Cool. But you owe Kathy 20 bucks. All right, kidding aside, so like building strategy, obviously an external factor, probably the one that people think about most when they think about the external ranking factors. There are other ranking factors though that are related to awareness and your other marketing activities. Let’s turn the page from link building strategies and talk about some of the other marketing activities that you have that are going to impact your SEO performance.

Jordan:                         Yeah, so like SEOs are constantly thinking about, “How do I generate links, how do I create links,” but one of the big missed opportunities is that Google is analyzing your brand and the awareness of your brand online. Understanding how you can create more awareness through various channels, maybe social media, marketing channels, partnership channels, all of these awareness placements help create a network where Google realizes that your brand is connected, your brand is vibrant or, quote unquote, living online. And it really generates, I believe, the best results even more so than links do. Now obviously our data shows that links still has one of the strongest indicators for better performance in rankings, but I have a strong tendency to advocate for awareness because I think awareness really is kind of the trigger that leads into good link building.

Kathy Brown:                Well, and I’ll add two things to that. The first is if you’re not a real company, you’re probably not getting any searches on your brand. And don’t you think that’s a big red flag to Google? So, you want some branded traffic to be coming your way, especially since it converts a lot quicker than unbranded traffic, so we want to brand the traffic and you want people to be linking using brand as the link anchor text. The second thing I just want to throw out there is I’m sure that a lot of people are aware that Google is continuing to change the SERP landscape. And by SERP I mean the search engine result pages and we’re seeing a lot more featured snippets and these various answer boxes and sometimes your brand may show up in those and there may not be a click, but the brand is still there. So, you’re brand building, even though you didn’t get the click to your website. So, think about that in this new evolving SERP landscape that we’re seeing, brand building and having your brand show up as a brand that answers questions when people ask questions either through voice search or by just typing on their phone. That’s a way that you’re going to also win because they’re going to remember that brand.

Ben:                             Yeah, I think the irony for me as I think of the enterprise SEOs of the world, is we’re constantly fighting for resources with their performance marketing teams, with the brand teams, with the PR teams. And even though internally when we’re putting together our strategies for SEO and we all want resources and we all want our headcount, in reality, when you know the dollars and the heads go to another team within your marketing organization, that is likely going to have a positive effect on your SEO, even if you don’t get the resources. When more dollars go to your performance marketing team, your social media presence is going to be better. When you’re driving more PR stories, there’s going to be more linking on higher profile websites and your brand team is building your awareness. So not that we all have to hold hands and sing Kumbaya when we’re doing our year end planning and fighting for dollars and headcounts, but in reality, there is some value that the SEO team gets out of the performance of the other parts of the marketing organization.

Jordan:                         That’s a great point because the enterprise SEOs who are listening to this podcast, I hope you recognize that this is as much about collaboration as it is about strategy. And I think that often as SEOs you run into the wall where you’re saying, “Hey, I need this for SEO,” which is true, but it’s more about how you’re able to influence these other channels, whether it be marketing channels, PR channels, to generate your own success. And I remember when I was at eBay, we worked a lot with the PR team to try to craft the stories so that they could help generate the right exposure for the right parts of eBay. Because obviously eBay’s a big website and if the PR team is publishing an article about iPhones, well, we want to make sure that our cell phone and smartphone pages are the ones that are getting [inaudible 00:17:58] Dotcom.

Jordan:                         That’s easier said than done and often, I’ll tell you the truth, my work at eBay, often we would just go rogue and say, “Hey, we’ll do it ourselves,” versus partnering with the PR team. And I got to tell you, looking back, that was the wrong approach. That was the wrong strategy because it ultimately left the entire company a little less valued because yes, the SEO team went and acquired these links, but we didn’t leave a sustainable and constant source of growth with the PR team.

Ben:                             Jordan Koene, link magnate and rogue SEO.

Jordan:                         This title is starting to get a little long and it’s concerning me.

Ben:                             I mean, you were already lead strategist and CEO, how many more titles can you have?

Jordan:                         Exactly.

Ben:                             All right, let’s-

Kathy:                          A man with many hats.

Ben:                             Absolutely. So, okay. We understand that the marketing team’s efforts can affect not only your link building strategy like Jordan mentioned, working with your PR team, your awareness and the visibility of your brand and all the other marketing efforts that are going to happen in the marketing team are going to impact your SEO performance. So, you know, partner and support the other people that are in the marketing team and your focus for external ranking factors is going to be on building quality links. Let’s talk about what isn’t a ranking factor and a little bit more about where you can get into trouble. What gets you into hot water with the big G in the sky?

Kathy:                          Well, there’s, you know, there’s no shortage of ways that people have come up with to get in trouble.

Ben:                             There’s no shortage of dumb shit, people have tried.

Kathy:                          So, I mean, obviously paid links are a no-no, but people still, “Well, you know, if I do it this certain way, Google may not find out that it’s a paid link,” and sure enough, you know, the kibosh comes down, they get a manual penalty and they have to go and rip out all those paid links, and disavow, and having done a lot of link remediation projects, I can tell you they’re very painful.

Kathy:                          For mediation projects, I can tell you they’re very painful. So, yeah. Paid links. People still do them. I recently just sat on a call where they had just done a bunch of paid links. So, people still do them. That’s obviously the big no-no.

Kathy:                          Another thing is PBN. So, PBN stands for Private Blog Network. The idea here is that you build up your own network of sites, and you do various like kind of sneaky things like you have different domain registrations under different companies and names. So, it’s not really clear that it all belongs to the same person. Then, a lot of PBN vendors will then sell links on these private blog networks to various companies. The problem with these is that a PBN is only so good as long as it’s secret. The problem is your competitors may turn you in. I’ve seen the patterns that show up because usually you just don’t get one link from PBN, you get a bunch of links. They all look the same. They stand out as a sore thumb on a site’s back link profile. So, although it sounds really good in principle, Google finds out about them, you get ratted out, and then you’re back to, “Well, you have paid links,” and it’s a problem.

Ben:                             Kathy, let me just talk to our listeners for a quick second here. Hey, you, with the earbuds in. Google knows everything you do. Don’t try anything shady. Okay, Kathy, go ahead.

Kathy:                          Well, actually, that’s a great segway. You just gave me this great segway because Google’s really smart. They have a lot of really smart engineers. These engineers, they’ve programmed the search algorithms to look for patterns. So, anytime you have a discernible pattern in your back-link profile, Google is going to notice it. You may not get a manual penalty, but algorithmically, those links might get automatically devalued. So, all that time you just spent trying to come up with something clever like, “Ooh. I know. I’ll just put widgets on all the local real estate sites out there.” It’s going to be a pattern. Anything automated like that or that you, that’s really the challenge with link building is anything scalable is usually going to get you in trouble. It really has to reflect people to people relationship. We’re in business. We want to make things really efficient. So, we look for ways to automate processes, and, unfortunately, with link building that tends to get you in more trouble than not.

Kathy:                          The one other thing I’ll mention is guest posting. Guest posting kind of once in a while is perfectly fine. It’s when you kind of make it your only link building tactic. Again, you do it at scale, and again, you don’t really work with the higher quality sites. Again, you’re then circuiting a pattern that Google will notice, and all that work will go to naught.

Ben:                             Alright, Kathy. Well, thanks for walking us through what are some of the ways that you can get in trouble, and some of these practices that you should avoid. Jordan, I’m curious to hear when you’re advising Searchmetrics’ clients, and SEOs in general, what are some of the ranking factors that you’re most likely asked about?

Jordan:                         One of the manufacturers that we are asked about almost always, and it’s almost in every conversation either it’s the CMO all the way down to the project manager. It’s really funny, and I’m sure, Kathy, you’ll agree, is do paid ads and Google make my rankings go higher. Unfortunately, the answer is no. If you pay for ads, hey, you’re paying for an ad placement, and you’re helping Google stock price go up, but you’re not getting better rankings from it. Now, the tricky part about that answer, and I think the hard part for probably both our listeners, but also the community to understand is that, we just shared a bunch of different ranking factors and signals that Google does look at. Like awareness and your media mix whether it be paid ads or other partnerships or other ways that you’re advertising, and those do play a role in your rankings.

Jordan:                         So, the reality is that if you just paid one dollar to get one additional click from a paid ad, you will not get higher rankings from that. There is no correlational data that will prove that but having a holistic marketing campaign that also includes paid ads, will help drive better awareness of your brand, and that better awareness of your brand will eventually help improve Google rankings.

Kathy:                          I mean and think about it. We all heard the maximum like that you have to have seven or nine touches before someone buys. It’s kind of similar if you see both an ad and an organic ranking result, it just helps make your brand a little bit more familiar. They see it twice. So, you’re just more likely to get a click when it’s just a little more prominent.

Ben:                             I think at the end of the day, the things that are going to be persistent in the ranking factors and the links that are going to stick around, building your awareness is important. Can you use paid to do that? Absolutely. Those links aren’t persistent. Right? The placement there that you’re buying is temporary. So, that’s likely why it’s not going to affect your SEO because at the end of the day, you’re SEO visibility is something that should be building over time not necessarily something that’s just a flash in the pan evaluation of your site.

Kathy:                          We’re nodding in agreement with you.

Ben:                             Thank you for telling everybody. So, to summarize what we’ve talked about, I think about external ranking factors. First and foremost the ones that the SEOs listed in this podcast really have the most control over what your link building strategy is, and the transition from how most people have thought about link building strategies in the past to what is really happening today is not just focusing on volume of links. It’s not even focusing on the domain authority of the sites that you’re getting to. It’s where are you going drive quality traffic from high quality recognized brands. I think if you’re focusing on that, and you’re putting in a consistent effort, you’re link building strategy is going to pay off over time.

Ben:                             Outside of what the SEOs control, there are all of the other factors that go into your integrated marketing campaigns, your PR team, your social media presence, not necessarily your paid performance, but the awareness that goes into your brand is going to help Google evaluate the strength of that brand, and that’s going to help your visibility.

Ben:                             Guys, did I miss anything there?

Kathy:                          No. I don’t think so. I think it’s about trust. Google has been burned by scammers before. There’s some publicized cases where sites that were ranking well, they’ve gotten taken down because Google became aware of some of the shady stuff they were doing. So, the more you keep your marketing on the up and up, the more it’s actually helping your business on the whole, not just SEO. I think the easier it is for Google to trust your site and the links you’re getting, and the better off you’re going to be.

Ben:                             Kathy, you bring up a great point. Google likely knows and can see what you’re doing. Then, some cases, they can even hear what you’re saying. So, you better not try to pull a fast one over on them because eventually they will catch you.

Ben:                             And that wraps up this episode of the Voices of Search Podcast. Thanks for listening to my conversation with Jordan Koene, Searchmetrics’ CEO, and Kathy Alice Brown, the Senior SEO Consultant here at Searchmetrics. We’d love to continue our conversation with you, so if you’re interested in contacting Jordan or Kathy, you can find a link to their LinkedIn profile in our show notes. You can contact Jordan through his twitter handle, which is JTKoene and Kathy’s handle is KathyAlice. If you have general marketing questions or if you want to talk about this podcast, you can find my contact information in our show notes, or you can send me at tweet at BenJShap. If you’re interested in attending our custom ranking factors webinar which is happening April 25th this afternoon, head over to

Ben:                             If you like this podcast and you want a regular stream of SEO and content marketing insights in your podcast feed, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app, and they’ll be back in your feed next week. Lastly, if you’ve enjoyed this show and you’re feeling generous, we’d love for you to leave us a review in Apple iTunes store or wherever you listen to your podcasts.

Ben:                             Okay. That’s it for today, but until next time, remember the answers are always in the data.




Jordan Koene

Jordan Koene

Jordan Koene is the CEO of Searchmetrics Inc. a wholly owned subsidiary of Searchmetrics. Previously, Jordan was the Head of SEO and Content Development at eBay. During his time at eBay, Jordan focused on utilizing eBay content to improve user experience and natural search traffic.

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